This is the seventh in a series called “Argue Better 2021” about how we can improve how we argue, discuss, and engage with each other. If you missed the previous entries, you can find them here: first | second | third | fourth | fifth | sixth
Every summer in college I would pack all of my belongings into boxes, put them into my Chevy Nova (the kind that looked like a Toyota Corolla, not the muscle car) and bring it all back home. The problem was, I never labeled any of my boxes, so when I had to find something, I had look through each box, trying to remember where I put it. When I moved again, years later as a full adult with a spouse and a child, I learned that if you sort your stuff and correctly label the box with the contents and room where it belongs, it makes moving and unpacking that much easier.
The usefulness of labels seems pretty obvious, doesn’t it? A little care in applying them in the beginning means that you won’t need to dig through all your stuff to know what’s in there. Labels are handy shortcuts, but simplification inevitably results in the loss of information, which opens up the possibility for confusion. For example, your labels might be ambiguous: Indicating that a box contains “stuff” might not be enough to tell a mover where it belongs. A label may require context in order to understand it: Does the box marked “glasses” belong in the kitchen? It depends on whether your are moving a friend’s apartment, or the office of an optometrist. And finally, a label may be intentionally misleading: If you don’t want someone to open a the box, you might label it so that they don’t bother to look. If my wife sees a box labeled “important papers” she will treat it with care, assuming it contains birth certificates and financial documents. She might be surprised to find out it holds a part of my comic collection, the “importance” of which she questions.
This potential for confusion and over-simplification can be used in a purposeful way to weaponize labels. We are seeing this frequently with modern media. Every writer or creator has some kind of bias or viewpoint, because they have to make choices about what to include or exclude, but the traditional journalistic ethic is to try to be as objective as possible. Some media outlets ignore this, instead working to further a particular agenda by whatever means. This is where we see the weaponization of labels, which works like this: They create the illusion of a simple dichotomy between things – good and evil, heroes and villains. They then associate certain labels with the “bad” things. With any person or viewpoint they don’t like, they can merely apply this label and shortcut any conversation, creating strong, negative opinions and emotions in the minds of their viewers, readers, or listeners.
This is how terms like “racist” or “Socialist” get thrown around and applied whenever someone wants to vilify something. Whether or not something is “racist” and what that even means, is something worth investigating. What exactly is “Socialism,” what do people mean when they say it, and why do people dislike it? These questions are avoided by weaponizing the words as labels, with such strong negative connotations that the association with something “bad” replaces the need to make logical arguments. Here are a handful of other labels which have been weaponized:
White supremacy, elitism, liberal, conservative, Communism, democracy, freedom, justice, fairness, safety, pornography, violence, cancel culture, social justice warrior, intellectual, middle class, merit, criminal, Black Lives Matter, Zionism, Sharia, terrorism, genocide, apartheid, Hitler, Karen
Whether labels have been purposely weaponized or are simply confusing, they can grind an otherwise constructive argument to a halt. It’s hard to keep discussing something when one side says “But that’s racist!” or “You’re talking about genocide!”.
The way to deal with this problem is to explode the labels. Whenever you hear your arguing partner use a powerful label, unpack that box, see what’s inside, and make sure you both understand the contents of your conversation. There isn’t a tricky technique to overcome this, you just need to be on the lookout for these labels and directly ask about them when you hear one.
“‘Racist’ is a very charged word that can mean different things to different people. Can you tell me a little more about your definition of racism?”
“What do you mean when you call something ‘genocide’?”
Try to continue the conversation without the use of the label. Even exploded labels can carry an emotional charge and have the power to derail an argument.
As before, you have an advantage here, because your goal is not necessarily to solve the supposed topic at hand, but to gain a better understanding of the other side and begin constructive conversations. If you find yourself spending an entire discussion just defining terms and what they mean to each of you, great! At least you are connecting. At least you’ve opened up the possibility for more conversation. Labels are argument landmines – it’s best to explode them, understand them, and clear the field for better communication.
At this point over these 7 blog posts, I’ve given you a handful tips on how to approach conversations and arguments with those who disagree with you. There are certainly more, but this is a good start. The only thing left for you is to go out and try it. Before I finish, I want to leave you with a few parting thoughts.
First, this is definitely one of those efforts in which some is better than none. You don’t have to try all of these techniques, just try one or two, and see where it gets you.
Second, none of this is easy. It may sound like I am speaking from the perspective of a master arguer, but believe me, I struggle just as much as anyone else. What I’m sharing are my aspirational goals – the way I wish I could be. I have experienced the extremely humbling self-own of confidently stating something, only to realize that I am making the same mistake I just wrote an entire blog post about avoiding. Be forgiving and gentle with yourself, this is hard stuff.
The real win is in the trying. If we allow ourselves to continue to become more divided, if we continue to allow the algorithms of our current media systems to create bubbles and echo chambers, we can never move forward. Society is too big to include only those who agree with us. There is power in welcoming a diversity of opinions and understanding someone else’s perspective. You may not be changing the world, but you can change things for those in your immediate circle.
If you would like to read more about some of the ideas I’ve discussed in this series, I recommend Think Again by Adam Grant. He writes about how to change your mind and open the minds of others. I read the book after I had finished all of my drafts for this series and was relieved to find that his ideas mesh with mine.
I also found The Righteous Mind by Jonathan Haidt an excellent resource for understanding how reasonable people can be so divided in their opinions. I read it in 2016, for some reason.
The next step is up to you. Find a partner who wants to create bridges just as much as you do and give it a try. And if you find any of these posts useful, please feel free to share them with others. Now, go out and argue!
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